Your first instinct might be to say that it is really easy to be a good person. But is that really the case? On the surface of it, you might say – you should not lie, cheat, steal (and listen to Heavy Metal music) and voila – you are a good person.
Yes, okay, but WHY are you “automatically” good if you do these things, we might ask – or we might dismiss such a question with a thought of the sort “because stealing is against the law”. Ok, but what about lying? Or cheating, for that matter? Are the answers really always so clear? What about if you’re lying, cheating or stealing to prevent or stop a greater injustice?
How about using violence? When it is justified to use violence to stop a greater injustice? When it is permissible to take a life? Yes, it seems that now we are a bit less certain. Or are we still very certain o have all the answers?
We might be tempted to say – that is why we have laws – to tell us what is right and what is wrong and under which circumstances. Okay, but we should be aware that the laws are man-made and as such, they are imperfect – and we should not forget that through history laws have been constantly revised, rescinded, amended and expanded.
So, there should be some basic moral rules that are to be used as a “source” of the laws, shouldn’t there? Optimally, yes. There should be a so-called “objective morality” that determines what is good and what is bad – sort of a foundation of our rules – something not dependent upon the beliefs of a particular culture at a certain point in time.
You might have noticed that certain TV shows and films hint at this with their main character asking a question like “What if their culture says it’s good to torture babies?”
The point is – we can not give in to moral relativism and simply say – it’s their law. We should strive to find out if certain rules are universal.
So, how do we do that? Certainly, we do not have some sort of a “morality Geiger counter” which we would point to space, then have it beep and we would go in this direction to find the morality as if it was something tangible.
But in essence, we need to do something similar, not with a physical device, but with our intellect. We would pick a potential ethical issue, think hard about it and when our logic and reason point us in the right direction – hopefully, we would be on the right track to find that elusive groundwork for a certain rule.
That is essentially where this book and the books like it step in. You see, various ethical issues have been already deeply scrutinized by humanity and we have indeed reached some good conclusions on various fronts.
This book, as you will see, is not the alpha and omega of ethics, or of what we should do and how we should behave, it is simply a collection of deep thoughts and conclusions the author has been having on various topics.
And it is indeed quite a collection, for the book attempts to do just what we have been talking about – it attempts to objectively determine what is ethical and why is it ethical in regard to various themes.
Practical Ethics is, just as the name suggests, a book that concerns itself more with the real world and less with philosophical notions of what is the truth or what is morality anyway, and as such it is a perfect starting point for people interested in living an ethical life to the best of their abilities. It concerns itself with the following themes, which are divided into chapters:
- Equality and Its Implications
- Equality for Animals?
- What’s Wrong with Killing?
- Taking Life: Animals
- Taking Life: The Embryo and Fetus
- Taking Life: Humans
- Rich and Poor
- Climate Change
- The Environment
- Civil Disobedience, Violence and Terrorism
As you can see from the list of topics alone, the book indeed concerns itself with the ethics for the real world – the issues of equality, euthanasia, abortion, the divide between rich and the poor, the environment and generally speaking, almost every theme that we concern ourselves with.
The author is very careful to examine pro and counter-arguments from all sides in every theme. What you do not see very often, but indeed see here, is that Signer actually discusses objections to his conclusions. He does this in great detail, so it feels like a debate and not simply like he intends to convince you using only the arguments of one side.
Of course, as with many books of this type, you have an interesting experience reading it – interesting in a sense that you might get deep into thoughts about an argument, and you might follow the book until a certain point is made – and then you are like: “Yes, that’s it. I finally understand why that is so, I believe I have now formed my opinion about it”, only to have the author make another point about the problem and have that point impact upon the earlier conclusion – so you find yourself saying that maybe you should not have been so hasty to consider the issue resolved.
What is particularly amusing is that you in time come to expect this – you start to think along the lines “That can’t be everything that there is. I bet he’s gonna bring yet another argument against it”. It’s really quite a ride.
The best part is, he is not limited by a particular doctrine or faith and is not afraid to ask really tough questions. And I feel that we need more books like this, that, as Kafka said, have the potential to make you angry. Because, if you read only to be comforted, then you are not growing.
This book, much like the author’s other work “Animal Liberation”, has inspired many people to rethink the things they thought they have already figured out. And it will undoubtedly do the same for you. How do I know? Because it will be hard for you to put it down, as it tackles such serious and important issues, yet it is not too difficult to read – you do not need to have any introduction to philosophy, latin lessons or a course in formal logic in order to be able to understand it.
So, it makes the big questions accessible to the general public – you do not need to be a philosopher in order to understand it – and that is the best recommendation. Do not think however that it is shallow. It’s just that the author took his time to make the arguments as simple to understand as possible, without losing too much or clouding the issues for an average person with too much philosophical jargon.
I particularly find the various chapters about killing very well argued, reasoned and thoughtful, as it should be the case for such a serious topic. The chapter about climate change is also guaranteed to make you stop and think for a bit as it offers some, I would say, rather unique points.
Although it is very possible you will not agree with all the conclusions in this book – I am still not sure that I agree with all of them – you will find it rewarding that you stuck with it and took this first step on a journey called “thinking for yourself”.
Take some time to read this. You will be glad you did.